Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rage (2009)

Maybe I don't look at enough movie review websites and blogs but despite all the people out there commenting on this or that film, some movies still seem to slip through the cracks, work singular enough to make you ask "Hey, how come nobody else has noticed this movie yet?".

That applies to a title I just discovered, Rage, a 2009 film by British filmmaker Sally Potter.  Potter is not that prolific at making features and her most well-known film, Orlando, came out back in 1992 so that may account for some of the neglect. Also the film actually seems to have premiered on digital platforms, like cellphones, and as far as I can tell, has had limited theatrical distribution.  Still it did make it out onto DVD where I saw it and found it very striking.

The setup for the film is a student interviewing various people at a fashion show over the course of a week for a school project. These people include all the types you would think of, models, the dress designer, a photographer, publicists, the owner of the fashion house, his bodyguard, a newspaper critic and others but their behavior changes drastically when a model dies onstage in the middle of the show.

This movie is put together as minimally as possible. It's just each character answering questions individually in front of a blue screen. None of the actors interact with one another and we only know what else is going on from offscreen noises and their descriptions.  By design then, what you get is a compelling set of performances by various actors that are intercut to tell a somewhat ambiguous but engrossing story. The photographer, played by Steve Buscemi, is a veteran war correspondent who boasts about keeping his cool in the face of death. The original owner of the fashion house, played by Dianne Wiest, comes off initially passive but eventually angry at the way her place is now run.  One model, played by Lily Cole, is a frightened babyfaced British girl. The other, played by Jude Law in drag (!), does the cool supermodel thing but starts to slip her reserve when things go bad. The owner, played by Eddie Izzard, is an oily, "I can buy anything" type and so on. Most of the acting, by a cast that also includes Judi Dench, Bob Balaban and John Leguizamo, is very good and gets beyond the obvious stereotypes.  Only a slick-dressing black police  detective, played by David Oyelowo, really flirts with caricature.

The film is not just a swipe at the fashion industry but a more incisive look at how people cope with crisis, whether it's fear, "what's in it for me" calculation, or denial.  Stripping away everything but the acting really drives this home. There are ambiguities and unanswered questions in the plot but this is one of those films where that really isn't important. Rage is an unusual experiment in film making that stays with you as a deep look into human behaviour.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hello Martial, Goodbye Billy

The thing I love about the piano as a jazz instrument is that a dozen different players, be they Herbie Hancock, Marilyn Crispell, Fred Hersch, Kenny Barron, Alex Von Schlippenbach, Misha Mengelberg, McCoy Tyner, Jessica Williams or anyone else, can sit down at the same piano and play the same song and no two versions will sound the same. And not a single one of them will sound anything like Martial Solal.

Solal is a French pianist now in his 80's whom I had the privilege of seeing play solo at the Library of Congress last night. He is known internationally as both a player and a composer who has done several movie soundtracks including an insignificant little Jean-Luc Godard picture known as Breathless.  Judging by his piano skills he was well matched by the frisky jump cutting of that film.

When he plays Solal, as he said last night, makes old songs sound new. He twists and deconstructs standards with sudden tempo shifts, repeating phrases and ornate Art Tatum-like filigrees to the point where they are barely recognizable. Everything he played at the concert was a familiar tune but he was halfway through "Here's That Rainy Day" before I recognized part of the melody and I was almost home on the subway before I realized that the last piece he played was "Have You Met Miss Jones".

   Solals' fingers move all over the keyboard with a speed and accuracy a man half his age would envy,  shooting out notes like Chico Marx, breaking melodies into crazily connected fragments like Bugs Bunny beating up Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody in the cartoon Rhapsody Rabbit and tossing out stream of consciousness quotes of everything from "Salt Peanuts" to "Peter And The Wolf". For all of his antics though his playing is not all sugary frosting.  There is substance to it, an ongoing sense of keeping the melody in play and a use of darker chords and dissonances that connects to Thelonious Monk and Ran Blake.  His treatments of "Corcovado" and "All The Things You Are" were downright subdued compared to the other pieces and showed that he can get some feeling out of a song when he has a mind to.

     I had previously heard little of Solal's music but now I'm thoroughly impressed.  Fortunately he has a surprisingly large amount of CDs available on Amazon to check out ranging in settings from solos to trios, both with French musicians and an American dream team of Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, to a larger group playing Ellington arrangements. Here is a taste of what I heard at the Library, Solal (in I think the same suit he wore last night) playing "My Funny Valentine" live in Paris.

On a sadder musical topic, the great violinist Billy Bang passed away April 11 after a long battle with cancer. I heard last summer that he was sick but this is still a blow. Bang was the hardest playing and wildest of modern jazz violinists with a sense of swing and feel for the blues that was unmatched. I was lucky enough to see him twice live, once in New York at the Vision Festival and once down here in Takoma Park, MD. Each time his playing floored me. In recent years Bang was best known for the two CDs he'd recorded commemorating his years fighting in Vietnam. At the Takoma Park show I overheard him say that he was preparing to complete that cycle by going back to Vietnam and recording with local musicians. I hope that project came off. Here he is in Poland bowing and plucking with another master, William Parker.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Rockin' In The Rockies with Moe, Larry and Curly

In flipping through TV channels last night I ran across a movie on Encore Westerns called Rockin' In The Rockies. From the description it seemed to be just a 40's B-Western, something I usually pay little attention to, but the cast list caught my eye. The stars were no less than The Three Stooges (!).
This was a completely new find to me. I knew about the features the boys made in the early 30's like Soup To Nuts, Meet The Baron and Dancing Lady and the B-western they did with George O'Brien in 1951, Gold Raiders, but I'd never heard of this movie before. Naturally I sat down and watched it.

It turned out to be a Western set musical comedy and the Stooges are easily the best things in it.  There isn't much plot. It starts out with Moe conning Larry and Curly and a couple of stranded showgirls into helping him prospect for gold.  That storyline peters out halfway through and is replaced by one of everybody plus some singing cowboys, played by the Hoosier Hotshots, auditioning for a Broadway producer who's come out Wesr for a vacation.

None of the other lead players in this thing make an impression. The male romantic lead, Jay Kirby, is "meh", the songs done by the lead women are forgettable and the Hotshots aren't all that at either music or comedy. However it was nice to see Vernon Dent, one of the Stooges' long time foils, in a supporting role even though he had no scenes with the boys.  There's also a good Western Swing number from Spade Cooley's band with Tex Williams on vocals.

All the other cast members take time away from our beloved knuckleheads (seen on the left of this picture, barely) but they do show up in about half the picture, often repeating familiar routines from their shorts.  Curly doesn't seem as manic as at his best, possibly because this was made during the period where he began to have health problems, but he's still pretty sharp. There are unique features here in that Moe being cast as a ranchhand and Larry and Curly as itinerant show people, the three of them don't always work together. Larry and Curly do a lot of scenes as a duo with Larry taking over Moe's bossy leader role. Also this is the only Stooges movie I've ever seen where Moe spends the entire film with his hair combed back instead of in his familiar bowl haircut.  This isn't some great lost find of Stooge greatness, but just about anything featuring their craziness is worth a watch.